Category Archive: Times of Israel

80 years after Kristallnacht terror, survivor revisits once glass-strewn streets

Walter Frankenstein, who helped save orphanage and synagogue on November 9, 1938, returns to the building where he saw Germans unleash horrors on the Jews of Berlin

BERLIN (AP) — Walter Frankenstein was 14 years old when a police officer came to the Jewish orphanage he was living at in Berlin, urging all children to leave the building immediately because “something bad will happen tonight.”

It was early evening, November 9, 1938. Later that night, he climbed up on the roof of the orphanage and saw fire lighting up the city.

Frankenstein, now 94, was describing Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass” — when Nazis, among them many ordinary Germans, terrorized Jews throughout Germany and Austria. They killed at least 91 people and vandalized 7,500 Jewish businesses. They also burned more than 1,400 synagogues, according to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Up to 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, many taken to concentration camps such as Dachau or Buchenwald. Hundreds more committed suicide or died as a result of the mistreatment in the camps years before the official mass deportations began.

Walter Frankenstein born in 1924, witness to the November 9, 1938 terror against Jews in Berlin and one of the few survivors of Auerbach’sches Waisenhaus orphanage poses for a photo at the orphanage memorial site for an interview with the Associated Press in Berlin, November 5, 2018. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

As Germany marked the 80th anniversary of the anti-Jewish pogroms this week with a series of memorial events, Frankenstein returned to the place where he witnessed the violence as a teenager.

One of the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, Frankenstein needed a walker as he slowly entered the compound where the Auerbach’sches Waisenhaus orphanage once stood. But his memory is still sharp, and he remembers exactly how the events unfolded that night.

Kristallnacht destruction in Magdeburg, Germany, November 1938. (German Federal Archive/Wikipedia Commons)

“A few hours after the plain clothes police officer had warned us, a group of men in uniforms came and told us, ‘you need to leave now, we want to set fire to the building,’” Frankenstein said during an interview with The Associated Press this week.

There would have been no way to take the youngest children to a safe place that quickly, he said. Frankenstein and some of the older boys at the home managed to convince the uniformed men, who belonged to the paramilitary SA, that if they burned down the orphanage the fire would spread to surrounding buildings.

“So instead, they went into our synagogue and turned off the sanctuary light in front of the holy ark,” Frankenstein said. “They did not turn off the gas and after they left, we suddenly could smell gas everywhere inside the building.” Frankenstein and his peers ran inside the synagogue, tore open all windows, and turned off the gas before it could lead to an explosion.

“The men probably thought that if enough gas would stream out, the building would blow up,” he said.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 photo, a Nov. 10, 1938 photo from the AP Archive, showing by Nazis destroyed Jewish shops at the Kurfuerstendamm street, is placed at the same location 80 years later in Berlin. (AP/Markus Schreiber)

Kristallnacht is often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust. It would still be years before the Nazis formally adopted their “Final Solution” for the Jews of Europe, when boycotts, anti-Semitism legislation and expulsions would evolve into a policy of mass murder. In all, 6 million European Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Guy Miron, who heads Israel’s Yad Vashem’s Center for Research on the Holocaust in Germany, said Kristallnacht represented an end to Jewish life in Germany, a point of no return.

The Borneplatz synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht (photo credit: Courtesy)

The Borneplatz synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht. (Courtesy)

“Until then, the Jews could still try to convince themselves that the wheel could be turned back. After it, the rupture was complete. They realized it was over,” he said at a Yad Vashem event this week marking the anniversary. “Before Kristallnacht people emigrated. After it, they fled.”

Standing under an old poplar tree shedding its bright yellow leaves, Frankenstein gazed at a red brick wall — the only remainder of the orphanage in the city’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. The building was badly destroyed during a World War II air raid in 1943, and the ruins were torn down in the 1950s.

The wall was turned into a memorial for those Jewish orphans who did not survive the Holocaust, with the names and ages of 140 children inscribed on the bricks. The youngest one, Cilla Fuks, was ten months old when she was murdered.

The memorial site of Auerbach’sches Waisenhaus orphanage in Berlin, November 5, 2018. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Frankenstein was one of the few who survived. In 1943 he went into hiding with his wife Leonie, whom he had met at the orphanage, as the Nazis were deporting thousands of Jews from Berlin to Auschwitz.

“We had promised ourselves not to do what Hitler wanted,” he said, still feisty after all these years. “So we went into hiding.”

Together with their newborn son Uri, the couple spent 25 months in hiding in Berlin. A second son, Michael, was born in 1944, during their time on the run.

In 1945, after the collapse of the Nazis’ Third Reich, the Frankensteins immigrated to what was then still British Mandatory Palestine. Eleven years later, in 1956, they moved from Israel to Sweden where they settled for good.

Walter Frankenstein, witness of the November 9, 1938 terror against Jews in Berlin and one of the few survivors of Auerbach’sches Waisenhaus orphanage shows a box with the Yellow badge the Nazis forced him to wear and with the Germany’s Federal Cross of Merit he got in 2014, during an interview with the Associated Press in Berlin, November 5, 2018. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Nowadays, Walter Frankenstein returns to Germany several times a year. He often talks to schoolchildren about his life and on Friday, the anniversary of November 9, 1938, he will be honored in an award-giving ceremony by Germany’s Culture Minister Monika Gruetters.

In 2014, he received Germany’s highest civil honor, the Federal Cross of Merit.

Every time Frankenstein travels to Berlin, he brings along the small blue case containing the cross. Inside the case’s lid, he has attached the first “mark” he got from the Germans: The Yellow Badge, or Jewish Star, that he had to wear during the Nazi reign to identify him as a Jew.

“The first one marked me, the second one honored me,” he said as he slowly closed the lid.


A great-grandma’s recipes recall sweet stories of pre-Holocaust life in Germany

Strangers across the globe share in some unexpected lessons when one reporter’s mother rediscovers a long-lost cookbook handwritten in ancient German script

NEW YORK — I had to stifle a laugh as I read the list of ingredients for the almond cake. Along with the almonds, sugar, eggs, flour and baking soda was this unexpected ingredient: “A touch of mice.” The recipe had been translated for me from the original German, but what could that mean?

The mystery of the “mice” was just the final chapter in a more than century-long saga. At some point after her wedding in the late 1800s, an Orthodox Jewish housewife named Betti Rosenbaum Bachenheimer took a small booklet and jotted down 18 of her favorite recipes in “Alte Deutsche Schrift,” an old style of Gothic German handwriting.

There were recipes for Gewürzplätchen and Mandeltorte (gingerbread cookies and almond cake), Schokoladenguss and Kastanienauflauf (chocolate glaze and baked chestnuts), and Kartoffelauflauf, a “potato bake” that includes directions to soak matzah in wine, then layer it with a mixture of potatoes, eggs, almonds, cinnamon, lemon juice and raisins.

Betti was my great-grandmother, and although she died 25 years before I was born, I’ve tasted some of her baked goods over the years. Her oldest son Siegfried, my grandfather, married my grandmother Jenny in 1928, shortly after Betti’s sudden death at age 54; Jenny ended up with her mother-in-law’s recipes.

Betti Rosenbaum Bachenheimer, namesake of the author’s mother and original writer of the recipe book. (Courtesy)

In 1929, Jenny gave birth to my mother, who was named Brunhilde in memory of Betti. And in 1993, Jenny, then 91, gave the precious booklet to Brunhilde (who changed her name to Bunny after the family escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s — a name that was quite a bit easier for her new friends in the Bronx to pronounce.)

I’ve always been intrigued by Oma (Grandma) Betti. Of all the photos I’ve seen of my ancestors, she’s the only one to whom I think I bear any resemblance. Although my grandfather died when I was a child, his younger brother Henry once told me all about her.

“She was a good, honest person,” he recalled. “She always had an open house for poor people. Polish Jews would come to town, and most were poor, so she would feed them. But they were never sure if we were as religious as they were, so they would only have a cup of coffee and eat herring.”

“If they had no place to sleep,” Uncle Henry continued, “she would let them stay in what we called ‘the good room’ upstairs, which was only meant for company.”

Betti, who was widowed in 1912 when her 35-year-old husband died of a ruptured appendix, struggled to provide for her young sons and make sure they adhered to Jewish values.

“When I was about 9 years old,” Henry laughed, “I went with some friends to try to steal apples. One of my friends was throwing rocks, and one hit me in the head. I ran home, bleeding, and my mother said, ‘See, God punished you for trying to steal!’”

Henry described Betti as a characteristic homemaker of her time and place, with some unconventional qualities.

“On a Sabbath afternoon, she would sit with the gentile women,” Henry said. “I asked her once, ‘Why don’t you sit with the Jewish people?’ She said, ‘They only talk about others. With my gentile friends, we talk about gardens, the fields, the weather, but not about other people.’ She was all right, my mother!”

One of Betti Rosenbaum Bachenheimer’s original recipes, written in ancient German script. (Courtesy)

I asked how Betti passed away so young.

“It was just before Passover,” my great-uncle explained, “and you know, you have to clean the whole house from top to bottom. She overdid it, she got a cold, and that was it.”

I have some doubts about whether “overdoing it” could lead to an early death. Then again, having grown up observing my mother and grandmother bring new meaning to the phrase, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” it does seem somewhat plausible.

At the time of her death, Betti was planning to sell the 300-year-old Bachenheimer home and move to the neighboring village of Kirchhain, where her son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law had secured an apartment.

She never did live in Kirchhain, but my mother and her parents did until 1933, when the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses forced the young family to move in with my grandmother Jenny’s parents. My mother has vague but fond memories of riding around Kirchhain in her father’s horse and cart.

Some time after my grandmother handed Betti’s recipes to my mom, I asked where they were. She had no idea, and they ended up missing for 25 years. This year, my mother, sister and I were cleaning out her apartment in preparation for her to move. As we went through thousands of cards, letters and documents, I heard my mother softly say, “Oh, wow — look what I just found.” And there were her grandmother’s recipes.

Old German script is incomprehensible to most Germans today, and while I could make out a word or two here and there, I knew we needed expert help. A German academic who’s written a book on the fate of the Jews of that area named Anna Junge, whom we met on a trip to my mom’s hometown in 2009, had an idea.

Junge contacted a teacher at the Alfred-Wegener High School in Kirchhain, Barbara Sonnenberger, who happily agreed to take on the project. She enlisted the help of her colleague Miriam Haag, who could decipher the handwriting.

Franziska Badouin (left), Katharina Koch, and Barbara Sonnenberger. (Courtesy)

Sonnenberger recruited two of her students, Franziska Badouin and Katharina Koch; for her “final exam” project in high school, Koch is conducting research on the history of the Jews in her village, a few miles from Kirchhain.

Sonnenberger is a founder of the local chapter of the Stolpersteine enterprise, which installs commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of the places Jews lived before being deported or forced to flee from their homes. Plaques have been placed in more than 600 German cities and towns, and in seven surrounding countries as well.

Badouin and Koch are also involved in the effort, which has set 51 Stolpersteine (“stumbling blocks”) in Kirchhain since 2015. As Sonnenberger wrote, “Our aim is to give each name a face and individual history, including the history of everyday life before the Holocaust. That’s why Betti’s recipes are a treasure for us too.”

Bunny North, née Brunhilde Bachenheimer, holding the translated recipes. (Courtesy)

In addition, Sonnenberger explained, “During our research about the Jewish families of Kirchhain, we are glad to get in contact with descendants. It is the most interesting and also the most moving and touching part of our work.”

The four toiled for months to translate Oma Betti’s scribbles into modern German, then into English. As Koch wrote, “It was so special for Franziska and me to translate them, and it was very interesting for us to read these old, original, handwritten recipes. We are very happy about your discovery of these treasures in your mother’s apartment.”

Sonnenberger noted that during the process, the girls “stumbled upon some ingredients that are not very common anymore, such as chestnut flour. However, some of the recipes are still common around Kirchhain. For example, the Butterplätzchen and Nusskuchen, (butter cookies and nut cake) to this day, are still made the same way.”

The translations were sent to me last month. Just before Rosh Hashanah, I handed them to my mom, as a surprise, and took a photo of her holding them. As she nears 90, she is now quite ill.

“It is wonderful and exciting that they did this for us,” she commented. And then my mother, whose baking and cooking skills were legendary, added poignantly, “I’m just sorry I didn’t have these when I was still baking.”

I emailed the recipes to all of Betti’s descendants. My mom’s first cousin Beverly (also named after her grandmother), wrote “I often bake with my 8-year-old grandson Elijah. We went over the recipes and he chose the gingerbread cookies, which we plan to make as soon as I get the ingredients.” It was exactly the response I’d hoped for.

Steve North, left, with mother Bunny North, née Brunhilde Bachenheimer, and her grandchildren — the author’s nephew and niece — Aviv Gilboa and Talia Gilboa, outside Bunny’s childhood home on the Untergasse in Kirchhain in 2009. (Courtesy)

As I perused the translations with my mother, I asked “Do you have any idea what this could mean, ‘a pinch of mice?’”

“They mean mace,” she immediately replied.

“Mace?” I exclaimed in utter ignorance. “Like, the toxic self-defense spray?”

“No, no,” my mom chuckled. “It’s a spice, made from nutmeg.”

I’d never heard of it; mystery solved. Ninety years after Oma Betti’s death and my mom’s birth, they both taught me something new.

Baked Chestnuts – Kastanienauflauf

1kg chestnuts
1L milk
150g butter
10 egg yolk
150g sugar
6 tbs liqueur

Boil chestnuts in hot water then peel off the skin, boil again in 1 L of milk, press them through a sieve. Beat the butter until it is fluffy. Mix it all together and bake it in the oven for 45 minutes.

At historic Boston Common, passersby come face-to-face with the Holocaust

Through November 10, large portraits of aging survivors appear in Boston installation of photographer Luigi Toscano’s ‘Lest We Forget,’ a remembrance project he started in 2015

BOSTON — In the heart of the United States’ oldest public park, large close-ups of 70 Holocaust survivors were erected this week by photographer Luigi Toscano as part of his “Lest We Forget” series.

Since launching the remembrance project in 2015, the German-Italian Toscano has photographed more than 200 survivors in seven countries. High-profile installations of the portraits have been staged in Germany, Ukraine, and — most recently — surrounding the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC.

Along with close-ups of 60 survivors from countries other than the US, Toscano included portraits of nine Boston-area survivors he sat with in recent months. The 46-year-old photographer initiated “Lest We Forget” in 2015, and has since received funding from Germany’s government, public grants, and private donors.

On Boston Common, each of the portraits includes a small panel with the subject’s name and biographical details. When The Times of Israel visited the installation on Tuesday afternoon, several portraits had yet to be put up along the path. Among them was that of survivor Halina Yasharoff Peabody, whose canvass was temporarily propped up next to bleachers.

‘Lest We Forget’ installation of Holocaust survivor portraits in Boston Common, Boston, Massachusetts, October 16, 2018 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

According to the information panel on Peabody’s portrait,”[a] a bomb fell on the house and permanently injured Halina’s hand” while she was in hiding from the Nazis in Krakow, Poland.

Some information panels shed light on the survivors’ post-war efforts to educate the world about the genocide. For example, two leaders of Boston’s survivor community are among Toscano’s newest images: Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter, former president of the New England survivors’ association, and Stephan “Steve” Ross, founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial along Boston’s Freedom Trail.

Enlarged to a height taller than most people, each portrait conveys intimate details of the survivor’s age-worn face. A subtle ring of white light appears in some sets of eyes, a reflection of the round lighting apparatus into which Toscano directs the survivors to gaze during their sessions.

Portraits of Holocaust survivors on Boston Common for the ‘Lest We Forget’ remembrance installation, Boston, Massachusetts, October 16, 2018 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

At a reception held at the Massachusetts State House on Tuesday, Holocaust survivors were joined by legislators and diplomats for the installation’s symbolic opening. The gathering was hosted by State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, whose district includes hundreds of survivors living in Brookline, Newton, and other Boston suburbs.

“It made me frightened,” said Creem of recent studies demonstrating that millions of Americans have never heard of the Holocaust.

In addition to Creem, the gathering was addressed by Germany’s top diplomat in New England, Nicole Menzenbach, whose office helped organize “Lest We Forget” in Boston.

Staged on Boston Common, the ‘Lest We Forget’ Holocaust remembrance installation includes a photograph of survivor Israel ‘Izzy’ Arbeiter, Boston, Massachusetts, October 16, 2018 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“These photographs stand for those who lost their lives and suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime,” said Menzenbach, who began her posting two months ago.

“Anti-Semitism is real and a current threat. It can be observed on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Menzenbach, who recently completed a fellowship at Harvard University.

As for photographer and filmmaker Toscano, the artist’s parents moved to Germany from Italy as guest-workers. As a 19 year old, Toscano visited the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. In the years that followed, he held stints as a roofer, a bouncer, and a window-washer before making it as a full-time auteur.

Portraits of Holocaust survivors taken by Luigi Toscano installed on Boston Common, Boston, Massachusetts, October 16, 2018 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

When asked by The Times of Israel where he would like to organize a future installation, Toscano mentioned Poland. A challenge to operating in that country, he said, is that few Holocaust survivors live there as compared to — for example — Israel and the US, where Toscano recently met with and photographed 21 survivors in Chicago.

“Lest We Forget’s” North American premiere was at the United Nations’ headquarters in January. Outside the iconic New York City building, survivor portraits were displayed adjacent to the long row of international flags. As with the Washington, DC, installation, the images were seen by thousands of people every day.

Boston’s “Lest We Forget” installation is set to run until November 10. The portraits will serve as a focal point next month during commemorations of the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, Nazi Germany’s prelude to the Holocaust.

Artist Luigi Toscano is interviewed for his Holocaust remembrance project, ‘Lest We Forget,’ in Mannheim, Germany, 2015 (courtesy)

Danish Jews recall desperate escape from Nazis, 75 years on

Daring rescue mission by resistance fighters and local fishermen enabled 7,000 Jews to flee to neighboring Sweden in 1943

Danish Jews celebrating the rescue of their community from the Holocaust 75 years ago by sailing to Sweden in a reenactment ceremony on September 26, 2018. (JTA/Courtesy of Rochel and Yitzi Loewenthal)

Danish Jews celebrating the rescue of their community from the Holocaust 75 years ago by sailing to Sweden in a reenactment ceremony on September 26, 2018. (JTA/Courtesy of Rochel and Yitzi Loewenthal)

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AFP) — Freddy Vainer was only four years old when he and his family were forced to flee Copenhagen to escape being deported to Nazi concentration camps, but he remembers it like it was yesterday.

“My grandfather was at the synagogue on October 1, 1943, when he found out that he had to flee,” he said. That month nearly 7,000 Danish Jews made the desperate journey by boat to neighboring Sweden.

At first the Jewish population seemed relatively safe, and were not forced to wear a yellow star.

But “in September orders from Berlin were being sent to deal with the so-called Jewish question,” Cecilie Banke, a researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies, told AFP.

She said that plans were leaked from within the German authorities so Denmark’s Jewish population could be warned.

Danish Jews arrive in Sweden after having been helped out of the country by the Danish resistance, October 6, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons – public domain)

“This is the essence of the rescue operation, the Jewish population knew so they could actually flee and since information was leaked, the Danish population could also help Jews to flee,” Banke added.

“This is the exception in the story of the Jews in World War II,” said Silja Vainer, Freddy’s wife.

More than 6,500 Jews who mainly lived in Copenhagen left their homes and hid mostly near the coast north of the capital before fleeing by sea, largely to the towns of Gilleleje and Snekkersten.

While Freddy and his family hid in a house in the northwestern coastal town of Hellebaeck before finding someone to take them across the water, 197 others were arrested trying to escape.

The great escape

A fisherman agreed to take only five of Freddy’s eight-member family.

Freddy said he stayed at the docks with his mother and grandmother before finally crossing over.

This picture, made before Germany’s occupation of Denmark, shows the Nazi party headquarters, April 11, 1940 in Copenhagen, Denmark. (AP Photo) The passage cost on average 1,000 Danish kroner per person (the equivalent today of 2,700 euros, $3,100).


“My grandfather also paid for others who didn’t have any money so that everyone could flee,” Freddy, a former doctor in his eighties, recalled.

His future wife Silja was three-and-a-half years old during the exodus.

However the people smuggler her family’s friends found refused to sail with adults and children together.

She had to hide in an orphanage for a few days with her brother and a cousin while her parents made the crossing.

“Then one day, some people came and made us take a bath in a big wooden bathtub and then we left,” she added.

“When we were at the beach, I remember the stones and the sound (of the waves). And then someone took me and placed me in a rowing boat and hid me under the fisherman’s net,” Silja said in her bright apartment, surrounded by family photos.

They were later placed in a trawler en route to Sweden. Silja was reunited with her family upon arrival — except for her paternal grandparents, who refused to leave Denmark.

They were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, like about 500 other Danish Jews, 50 of whom died there.

However Silja’s grandparents returned to Denmark after the end of the war.

‘Nightmares all my life’

By the end of September 1943, neutral Sweden had formally offered asylum to Danish Jews and prepared to welcome them.

“We fled with almost nothing and were given clothes when we arrived in Sweden,” Freddy said.

His family members who worked as tailors moved to the Swedish textile town of Boras near the west coast.

Meanwhile, Silja and her family moved to the central town of Vingaker. She kept some photos of herself showing a smiling long-haired girl playing with her brother and neighbors at the time.

They returned to Denmark after the nation was liberated on May 5, 1945.

Neither Silja nor Freddie could return to their old apartments which were rented to other families. But they quickly found new housing.

Nazi soldiers on the march over an unnamed road in Denmark, April 9, 1940, seized by Germany in a sudden thrust toward Scandinavian points. (AP Photo)

“The municipality of Copenhagen made sure that all the belongings of the Jews, who were forced to flee, were kept in good condition and we recovered everything,” added the former teacher.

On their way to their first classes at the Jewish School in Copenhagen when they were children, they did not talk about their experience.

“One of my classmates had lost his father, a brother and a sister during the crossing, and he never talked about it,” Freddy said.

In his family, not a word was uttered about their escape and Sweden while for Silja, “we could not avoid talking about it.”

“I’ve had nightmares all my life and worked a lot to try to not cry,” she said with a sob.

“We’ll always be refugees.”

In NY, virtual reality puts a human face on the horrors of a Nazi death camp

A new multimedia display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage uses virtual reality and personal artifacts to flesh out the murdered Jews the Nazis tried to view as mere numbers

Pinchas Gutter tours the concentration camp where his parents and twin sister were murdered during World War II in this screenshot from 'The Last Goodbye.' (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

Pinchas Gutter tours the concentration camp where his parents and twin sister were murdered during World War II in this screenshot from ‘The Last Goodbye.’ (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

NEW YORK — Pinchas Gutter stands on the platform. Behind him, the trees appear to sway ever so slightly in the breeze. He recalls the moment he and his twin were cleaved apart — how all he remembers of Sabina, then 11, is her long, golden braid.

Next the octogenarian stands inside the gas chamber where his sister and parents perished. His pain is as palpable as his determination to sear his story into the consciousness of his audience — a pain made all the more poignant by the fact that each viewer is actually “with” Gutter in the Nazi death machine.

It is part of the virtual reality film “The Last Goodbye,” in which Gutter invites visitors to walk alongside him as he returns one last time to Majdanek, the place where his parents and his twin sister were murdered.

The 20 minute film experience, co-produced with the US Shoah Foundation, is part of “In Confidence: Holocaust History Told By Those Who Lived It,” a new multimedia installation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Through correspondence, journals, photographs, artwork, and testimonies the exhibit makes the past personal.

“Having little children myself, and seeing some of what was produced by young people in the camps, it’s an overwhelming feeling,” said Michel Glickman, the museum’s president and CEO.

“And then to experience Majdanek with Pinchas, it leaves you with as many questions as answers. You do lose yourself in the moment. It’s incredibly intimate — you’re being pulled into his life,” he said.

After the conclusion of the film “The Last Goodbye,” a museum staff member escorts the viewer to the interactive exhibit, “Dimensions in Testimony.” There, they stand before a projection of Gutter and can ask him questions about his experience, from what he remembers about life before the war to his first impression upon arriving in Majdanek. Gutter recorded answers to 1,500 questions over five days. The technology works similar to Siri or Alexa, where key words prompt answers, said Miriam Haier, the installation’s curator and the museum’s director of strategy and engagement.

In the future, Gutter, and a number of other survivors who participated in similar interviews, will bear their testimony as holograms.

“If part of the Nazi project was to degrade and divest people of humanity, we want to reinvest them with humanity,” said Haier.

“Each time someone wrote something, or painted something, it resisted the attempt to reduce them to numbers,” Haier said.

‘I hope that my brother’s name will be remembered’

Displaying rare and never before seen artifacts, “In Confidence” seeks to pull visitors into the lives of others. That’s why the installation is organized by medium, rather than a strict chronology, Haier said.

Among the personal artifacts featured are autograph books, a photo album filled with pictures of smiling friends, and a 10-year-old girl’s letters to her mother that capture the day-to-day life of prisoners in Terezin. On the walls are large panel displays of letters and photographs.

In July 1942, Gita Hojtasova (10 years old), Zuzana (7 years old), and their mother Gertrude were deported from their native Prague to the Terezin concentration camp/ghetto. They were liberated in 1945. Drawings in colored pencil, often on rag paper, show Zuzana’s expression of the complicated childhood that she endured in Terezin. (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

Survivors, or their families, donated most of the items featured in this installation — sometimes so that the remaining traces of their loved ones’ lives would be preserved.

“We want people to have a deep engagement with something, to find some connection with a huan being,” Haier said.

That was Gerda Loewenstein’s hope when she donated 53 of her brother Peter’s artworks to the museum with the following appeal: “I hope that my brother’s name will be remembered and his work appreciated.”

“She was very clear when she donated to the museum that this was about remembrance,” Haier said.

Peter Loewenstein was deported to the Terezin concentration camp in the autumn of 1941, when he was 22 years old. While in Terezin, he created about 70 drawings in ink and watercolor. With each brushstroke, each dab of paint, he tried to hold onto his humanity.

Peter Loewenstein, ‘South Barracks,’ 1944, watercolor on paper, signed and dated on the bottom right: ‘PL 44.’ (Gift of Gerda and Herman Korngold/ Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

He tried to depict what the Jewish people imprisoned there experienced on a daily basis. In 1944, when he learned he would be deported to Auschwitz, Loewenstein gave his portfolio to his mother. Then, just before she and his sister Gerda were deported, his mother passed it to a family friend. Loewenstein perished in Auschwitz; only Gerda survived. After the war she reclaimed his artwork.

Another highlight of the section devoted to artwork includes over 100 drawings by Helga Weissova during the nearly three years she spent in Terezin between the ages of 12 and 14.

Weissova drew everyday scenes such as people scrambling for food and preparations for a visit by the Red Cross. In 1944 Weissova and her mother Irena were deported from Terezin and sent to Auschwitz. They went on to Freiburg, and finally Mauthausen, where the US Army liberated them on May 5, 1945.

After the war she reclaimed her drawings, which her uncle Josef Polak had hidden in a barracks wall at Terezin.

Helga Weissova, ‘Odchazejici Transport/ Transport leaving Terezin,’ 1943. Watercolor and ink on paper. People walk past the Hamburg barracks to the train that will deliver them to Auschwitz. Others witness their deportation — and say goodbye. (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

A late postwar reawakening

The exhibit, which runs through January 31, 2019, includes a range of formats from a range of time periods, including postwar. For example, “The Art of Mikhail Turovsky” wasn’t begun until 1980.

“In the post-World War II Soviet Union, there was no open acknowledgment of the Holocaust. Jews that managed to escape Kiev and return after the war learned of the deaths of their loved ones only because they had disappeared from the face of the earth,” Mikhail Turovsky, 85, said in a press release.

“There was no official information or record of where or how they died. I wanted to express this tragedy, to convey the horror that these people — my grandmother and cousins among them — experienced in the face of annihilation, to express my own pain and compassion,” he said.

In the years since, Turovsky’s Holocaust paintings have been exhibited at Yad Vashem, the headquarters of the United Nations Organization, and at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City.

Photo of Gita and Zuzana Hojtasova in their family business in 1945. (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

Some of the work on display comes from people who always intended on preserving and sharing their stories. Other creators, like Rywka Lipszyc, likely never envisioned that their work would become public. In the section “The Girl in the Diary,” which is presented in cooperation with the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland, visitors can read excerpts from Lipszyc’s journal.

Lipszyc, then 14, wrote her diary while living in the Lodz Ghetto from 1943 to 1944. She writes of being treated like a child because of her age. She writes an entry on the day her brother was deported; about people dying of starvation; and how she fears her mind will go to waste living in the ghetto. And she writes that the only person who has permission to read her diary is her friend Surica.

Replica of the found diary of Rywka Lipszyc. ‘The Girl in the Diary’ is presented in cooperation with the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland. (Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center of San Francisco/ Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

A Soviet doctor discovered the diary after the war near the ruins of Crematorium 3 at Auschwitz. Although she couldn’t read it, she knew it was important and saved it.

While the fate of the diary is known, Lipszyc’s fate is not. It is not known whether her young life was cut short like the final sentence on the last surviving page of her diary.

“A few years ago, in my dreams, when I was imagining my future, I could see sometimes: an evening, a studio, a desk, there is a woman sitting at the desk (an older woman), she’s writing… and writing, and writing… all the time… she forgets about her surroundings, she’s writing. I can see myself as this woman,” Lipszyc wrote on February 28, 1944.

For Haier, who spent months putting together the installation, it is perhaps the letters and journals that are the most affecting.

“I feel some responsibility reading something that was never meant for the public,” Haier said. “I think about what responsibility do we have to read it and I wonder what does that mean that we are the carriers of these stories?”

Reservations are recommended for the “The Last Goodbye.”

Exhibition held at Polish parliament on destruction of Jewish cemeteries

Non-Jewish activist group displays photos of Jewish graveyards in Poland that have been repurposed as shooting ranges, playgrounds

Illustrative: Gravestones at the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw, Poland, on December 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Illustrative: Gravestones at the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw, Poland, on December 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

An exhibition highlighting the destruction of Jewish cemeteries in Poland opened at the country’s parliament.

A group of non-Jewish activists called Currently Absent launched the exhibition bearing the same title on Tuesday at the Sejm, the Polish parliament, where it was hosted by Speaker Marek Kuchcinski of the ruling Law and Justice party.

“This is an important project, we are honored to host in the Sejm,” Kuchciński said at the opening.

The exhibition by Currently Absent opened amid a debate in Poland over protests by Jewish groups on cemetery desecration. The group photographed translucent plastic slabs shaped like headstones, complete with Hebrew-language epitaphs, at sites that used to be Jewish cemeteries, resulting in eerie, ghost-like visuals that recall the locale’s history.

Last month, the World Zionist Organization strongly protested what it said was the destruction of a Jewish cemetery in the town of Klimontow, near Krakow, during the construction of a sports complex being funded by the state. The complex, comprising a basketball and soccer court, was inaugurated on September 6 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, according to the municipality’s website. It said the project has received more than $90,000 in government funding.

Separately, ultra-Orthodox followers of the Modzitz Hasidic dynasty, which is based in Israel, are fighting for access to the recently renovated courtyard of a school in Kazimierz Dolny, in eastern Poland, where they say their movement’s founder is buried.

The construction on what they say is the final resting place of Rabbi Yehezkel of Kuzhmir and others desecrated many Jewish graves, the movement’s followers have said.

Some 20,000 Jews are now living in Poland, which had 3.3 million Jews before the Holocaust.

Several groups are working to preserve Jewish cemeteries in Poland, including the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative and From the Depths.


After US teacher exposes her grandfather as Nazi collaborator, Lithuania listens

Long hailed as a national hero, Jonas Noreika has also been accused of murdering Jews during WWII. Now, his granddaughter has written a biography — and it’s far from exonerating

Silvia Foti visiting a friend in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 2013. (Ina Budryte/via JTA)

Silvia Foti visiting a friend in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 2013. (Ina Budryte/via JTA)

JTA — Barring unexpected delays, Silvia Foti is months away from fulfilling an old promise that’s become her life’s work: to write a biography of her late grandfather, who is a national hero in his native Lithuania.

Foti, a 60-year-old high school teacher from Chicago, made the pledge to her dying mother 18 years ago. She has spent a long time studying the life of her grandfather, Jonas Noreika, as well as acquiring the writing skills necessary for chronicling it and finding a publisher.

The national hero, she and they insist, was a Nazi collaborator who helped murder thousands of Jews and steal their property.

The unpublished biography, which Foti summarized in a bombshell Salon article in July, split her own family. She said her father and his second wife asked Foti not to publish the book because it would “make Lithuania look bad.” And it would have distressed her mother if she were still alive — the author said this causes her “great pain.”

But the main significance of the book is the unprecedented attention it is bringing to Noreika’s alleged crimes in Lithuania, where a school has been named for him. Noreika died in 1947 while in the hands of the KGB. In 2000, former president Vytautas Landsbergis, the first head of state of independent Lithuania, attended the funeral of Noreika’s wife in Vilnius.

Last week, Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius urged authorities to remove a memorial plaque to Noreika from the wall of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in central Vilnius – the first such call by a senior Lithuanian official on any of the country’s numerous monuments celebrating killers of Jews.

Jonas Noreika (Wikipedia)

Following the Salon article and coverage of it in The New York Times, Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius, who for years has ignored calls by Jewish groups to remove the plaque, asked the state-funded and -operated Genocide and Resistance Research Center to review Noreika’s status as a national hero.

In her book, Foti explores how her grandfather issued orders to round up and kill the Jews after his appointment in 1941 as head of Siauliai County under the German Nazi occupation. And she presents evidence that he personally moved into the home of a Jewish family after its members had been killed, presumably at his order.

Foti recalled being shocked when she first learned of these allegations in 2013 while visiting the school in Sukionių named for her grandfather. The principal told her that “he got a lot of grief from the Jews” over the name, but assured her it “was all Soviet lies.”

That remark put her on a path to unravel the history of Lithuanian Jewry’s murder and her grandfather’s complicity in it. At first she had “hoped to exonerate him,” Foti said. Yet a wealth of evidence convinced her that her grandfather was complicit and actually “taught his Lithuanian soldiers how to exterminate Jews efficiently: how to sequester them, march them into the woods, force them to dig their own graves and shove them into pits after shooting them,” as she wrote in the Salon article.

It was a devastating discovery for a woman who said she grew up “adoring” her late grandfather. At Christmas dinners, her tight-knit family would leave an empty chair and glass of wine for him to acknowledge the absence of the handsome man in framed portraits who probably was tortured to death by the KGB at the age of 37.

Foti said she hopes the book helps “Lithuania finally take a good look at its own role in the Holocaust and stop blaming the Germans for everything.”

She has had to pray and seek guidance from God throughout her work on the book, she said.

The debate about Noreika and other collaborators who sided with the Nazis when they were fighting Russia during World War II goes to the heart of Lithuania’s national narrative that it was and is a victim of Russia. Seen through that prism, collaborators like Noreika or Juozas Ambrazevicius, the leader of a local pro-Nazi government, sided with Germany only to achieve independence for Lithuania.

But that narrative ignores the level of complicity by ordinary Lithuanians — many of whom viewed Jews as agents of communism — in the near total annihilation of the approximately 220,000 Jews who lived in Lithuania before the Holocaust, according to Efraim Zuroff, the Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Chief Nazi-hunter of the US-based Jewish rights group Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Efraim Zuroff, during an interview with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, August 17, 2017 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Zuroff believes that the veneration of people like Noreika in some ways is rooted in a collective desire to whitewash Lithuanian complicity.

“You see this tendency across Eastern Europe,” he said, “but it’s strongest specifically in the countries with the highest amounts of genocide complicity.”

Lithuania is the only Nazi-occupied country noted by Israel’s Yad Vashem museum for its people’s “enthusiasm” for collaboration with Germany. And even when this enthusiasm “subsided … hostility towards Jews and denunciation persisted,” the museum says.

One example of this genocidal zeal occurred in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city. At the Lietukis Garage, pro-German Lithuanian nationalists killed more than 50 Jewish men in 1941 by beating, hosing and then murdering them with iron bars, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some of the perpetrators then posed for pictures with the victims’ tortured bodies, providing some of the most memorable images of Nazi collaboration anywhere.

Aftermath of the Kovno, Lithuania (or Kaunas) ‘garage’ massacre in June of 1941, perpetrated by pro-German Lithuanians (public domain)

Foti’s research turned the plaque for Noreika into a symbol for the fight for recognition of that complicity. But the plaque is just one of numerous expressions of veneration for perpetrators.

Juozas Krikstaponis, a member of a death squad who killed thousands of Jews in Lithuania and Belarus, has a monument for him in the city of Ukmergė, 30 miles north of Vilnius.

The Nazi collaborator Kazys Skirpa, who represented his nation in Berlin during WWII, has a main street named after him in Kaunas, and his image features regularly in nationalist marches. An outspoken anti-Semite, Skirpa “proposed to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ not by genocide but by the method of expulsion from Lithuania,” the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania asserted in 2015.

Against this background, the developments around Foti’s article have surprised veteran campaigners for Holocaust recognition in Lithuania.

Zuroff acknowledged that Jewish Holocaust scholars like himself are “easy to dismiss” in Lithuania as Russian agents or disgruntled enemies of the Lithuanian nation. Even ethnic Lithuanians who try to confront complicity quickly get labeled as traitors.

In 2015, Zuroff co-authored a landmark book with Ruta Vanagaite, a successful writer who is not Jewish, that chronicles their joint travels across many of the killing sites of Jews that dot Lithuania and their history. “Our People” also features Vanagaite’s discovery that two of her close relatives, her grandfather and uncle, were active in the persecution of Jews.

But Vanagaite’s publishing house last year dropped her as the mainstream media attempted to discredit her. Landsbergis, who was Lithuania’s first leader after communism, published an op-ed on the Delfi news site calling Vanagaite a “moral scumbag” and “Mrs. Dushanski” — a reference to the Jewish KGB officer Nachman Dushanski.

Main entrance to the Ghetto of Vilnius in Lithuania, during WWII (Wikimedia Commons – public domain)

Vanagaite’s publishing house also recalled all of her books, only one of which was about the Holocaust. And the governing coalition in April introduced a bill banning the sale of books that “distort historical facts” in what was seen as direct reaction to some of her claims about WWII.

Whereas Vanagaite’s ties to Zuroff and liberal credentials made her vulnerable to smear campaigns, Foti “totally blindsided the Lithuanian government,” according to Grant Gochin, a Los Angeles-based financial adviser of Lithuanian-Jewish descent. Gochin is behind multiple lawsuits over his ancestral homeland’s veneration of war criminals, including Noreika.

“They can’t call Noreika’s daughter a Soviet agent, they can’t defend against her,” he said.

In this respect Foti, who also favors the removal of the plaque honoring her grandfather and other honors, landed a rare victory for Zuroff, Vanagaite and Gochin’s side. She also highlighted their fight to the outside world.

But the officials who said they favored steps to remove Noreika as a national hero were “clearly paying lip service,” Gochin said, “or it would’ve happened long ago.”

As long as Lithuanians are taught to revere people like Noreika, Gochin said, “the fight for historical accuracy is being lost.”

“Genocide,” he said, “needs to be acknowledged where it happened.”

Outsourced mass murder: How Topf & Sons engineered genocide from its boardroom

Among dozens of German companies that enabled the Holocaust, the opportunistic crematorium maker was indispensable, according to new book

Crematoria at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz I. Their construction was a prelude to much larger crematoria complexes later constructed at Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, in Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Crematoria at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz I. Their construction was a prelude to much larger crematoria complexes later constructed at Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, in Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

If the owners of Topf & Sons had been allowed to implement the firm’s vision, Auschwitz-Birkenau would have received the most high-tech crematorium system ever designed: a four-story tall “incineration chamber” to be fueled by heated corpses placed along conveyor belts. Instead of having to rely on the Third Reich’s existing small prisoner-operated “ovens,” the disposal process could finally become self-contained.

The plans drawn up by Topf & Sons for this nightmarish creation were never implemented, but  — by the time the family business filed a patent application for it — the company had already helped the Nazis dispose of more than one million corpses at several forced labor and death camps.

Founded in 1878, Topf & Sons’ initial expertise was in brewing and milling. The unprecedented carnage of World War I, however, opened new possibilities, pushing Topf to become the global leader in designing and constructing crematoria.

During World War II, Topf & Sons made itself indispensable to the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. The company’s products and know-how were deployed most lethally at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where piles of evidence — corpses — were disposed of in Topf “ovens.” The gas chambers were also ventilated by Topf technology for much of the camp’s existence.

‘Architects of Death,’ published in 2018 (courtesy)

“Auschwitz evolved from a backwater camp for Polish prisoners to a site for Soviet prisoners of war and finally into a vast forced labor complex and the heart of the planned extermination of the Jewish race in Europe,” wrote Bartlett. “And far from being mere ‘camp suppliers,’ it was the innovation and flexibility of Topf & Sons that enabled this transformation,” wrote the London-based journalist.

Bartlett’s book is framed around the elderly Hartmut Topf, great-grandson of the company’s founder. For many years, Topf sought to “separate himself” from his family’s infamous name, including by helping to create a memorial at the former headquarters of Topf & Sons.

As the book’s figure of redemption, Topf recalls a Jewish friend from his childhood named Hans Laessing. The boy and his family “disappeared” during the war, and Topf remained forever haunted. In addition to the atonement-seeking German, the book examines the motivations of Topf & Sons’ leaders during the Nazi era, as well as some of the firm’s SS liaisons.

“The challenge for me was to explore the human motives of the men involved,” Bartlett told The Times of Israel in an interview. “A book that was about the technology of building ovens would be a very grim and strange book — I wanted to make sure we in some way understood what these men were like, and why they behaved as they did.”

‘Prepared to put aside any human morality’

The Nazis’ genocidal program was an irresistible opportunity for brothers Ludwig and Ernst Topf, leaders of their namesake company throughout the 1930s and World War II.

Although fewer than two percent of the firm’s products were used in the killing facilities of Nazi camps, the owners and engineers of Topf & Sons went beyond the call of duty in servicing the SS. Assisting the process were more than 600 forced laborers brought in from the conquered east.

Crematoria room entrance at the former Nazi concentration camp Mauthausen, in Austria, 2013 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

During the first phase of the Auschwitz-Birkenau’s existence, the “stop-gap” in mass murder was the ability of the SS to destroy thousands of corpses on a weekly basis. Initially, fields of mass graves heaved open in the summer heat, pointing to the need for a more technological — and permanent — method for eradicating human remains.

To solve the problem, Topf & Sons installed its “eight-muffle ovens” inside several of the gassing-crematoria complexes. With the new ovens, thousands of corpses could be incinerated daily. In addition to building and maintaining the crematoria, Topf & Sons later created a ventilation system for the gas chambers, allowing the corpses to be cleared out in about one hour, as opposed to several hours.

“In the case of Topf & Sons, it was a handful of individuals — out for what they could get — be that money, safety from serving in the army, or career advancement,” Bartlett told The Times of Israel. “They were opportunists, prepared to put aside any human morality to advance themselves in the smallest of ways,” said Bartlett.

Like the Nazi regime they served, the masters of Topf & Sons became adept at deploying euphemisms, for example replacing the word crematoria with “incineration chambers.” Toward the end of the war, the firm applied for a patent to build a “continuous operation corpse incineration” system. Never constructed, the concept was based on using conveyor belts with heated corpses to maintain the flames.

Journalist and author Karen Bartlett (courtesy)

For abetting the Nazis’ genocide machine, neither Ludwig nor Ernst Topf were prosecuted after the war. Under Soviet rule, the company was confiscated and nationalized. Historians largely blame Soviet authorities for hindering prosecutions of the company and its leaders, including by withholding key evidence.

By 1955, the firm was no longer making “incineration chambers,” but focused on granary construction for farms. The privatization of Topf & Sons in 1993 was followed by bankruptcy and closure in 1996, some half a century after the firm’s heyday as Germany’s leading designer and manufacturer of crematoria.

‘This is happening all the time’

“Architects of Death” closes with the 2011 creation of a Holocaust memorial at the building that served as Topf & Sons’ headquarters, not far from Buchenwald.

Located in central Germany’s Erfurt, the memorial’s façade is marked with the words used by the firm in its correspondence with the SS: “Always happy to be at your service.” Inside the ordinary-looking office building, visitors can learn about Topf & Sons’ dubious accomplishments during the Third Reich.

Ruins of gas chamber-crematoria complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi death camp in Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“We can show here how easy it is for a human being to ignore his responsibility towards his fellow human beings in his daily work,” said memorial director Annegret Schule.

Currently, the memorial is the only of its kind at the site of a German company involved in the Holocaust. Through windows in the former headquarters, Buchenwald can be seen in the distance — a world of horrors where thousands of prisoners’ corpses were destroyed in crematoria provided by Topf & Sons.

“If I go to the memorial in Buchenwald I cannot identify myself with the SS, because I would never have become a member,” Schule says in Bartlett’s book. “But I can relate to other people who harm other people by doing their normal jobs. This is happening all the time. Visitors are motivated to think about this. Processes that are completely normal within any companies have led to atrocities,” said the memorial director.

Following the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, photographers captured some of the regime’s atrocities there, including mounds of corpses placed outside the Topf & Sons-built crematoria (public domain)

In her interview with The Times of Israel, Bartlett noted that Topf & Sons was one of many German companies involved in making Nazi atrocities possible.

“There are many companies who [could be researched in the manner of Topf & Sons],” said Bartlett, adding that she relied on German translators in piecing together the book from vast archival holdings.

“For example, Siemens built the electrical infrastructure for the camps, and Bosch installed the plumbing and water,” said Bartlett. “Kori was the other company which built crematoriums for the camps; it still exists but has never made any of its archive available to researchers. I believe that you can see the building where the company existed which made the Zyklon B gas in Hamburg, but there is no memorial there,” said Bartlett.

Asked why she thinks no other Holocaust-complicit German companies have erected memorials, Bartlett pointed out the difference between remotely located former Nazi camps, and major companies still in existence.

“[The camps] can be mentally put aside and forgotten about in some senses,” said Bartlett. “Companies are still in existence, in the hearts of towns and cities, and are therefore much more a part of normal life.”

Ruins of a gas chamber-crematoria complex at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, with stairs leading down to the undressing room, Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)